*This story originally appeared in The Budget’s Feb. 28, 2018 Local Edition
By Beverly Keller
School safety has become a buzz word in recent weeks. Yet, for local school administrators, it is something that is on their minds, every day.
“It weighs on us,” stated Dr. Jim Millet, Garaway superintendent. “As administrators, there are many areas we have to address and, keep in mind, student safety is at the top of that list.”
“We are a kid’s first experience with adults outside of their family,” explained Ryan Taggert, principal at Garaway 7-12. “It is really important to us to keep students safe at all times. Kids who feel they are safe do better in school. That’s the bottom line.”
The first line of defense at all Garaway and East Holmes schools is the use of a buzzer system because the doors are locked from the inside once school is in session.
East Holmes Superintendent Erik Beun noted the system has been in use for years. “We have buzzers at all of our buildings,” he said. “Anyone who visits once school is in session has to buzz in.”
At Garaway, the buzzer system is augmented with magnetized locks on the doors as well as key readers that were paid for thanks to grant money from the Rosenberry Foundation. “This way, we have limited access to the school itself,” Taggert explained. “We know who, when and where in terms of people in the building.”
Superintendent Millet noted that the buildings were all re-keyed over the summer months, as there were literally hundreds of keys floating around from the past 30 years. “Now, we have a limited number of keys and the keycards, which adds a level of security to each building,” he said.
Checks are randomly made at buildings to be sure that all doors are locked, all the time. “We take safety very seriously as a district,” Millet shared. “If I’m visiting a building or James Meek is visiting a building, any of us really, we are checking the doors to make sure they are locked.”
School safety plans
Both schools also have comprehensive safety plans in place and on file with the Ohio Department of Education. “We brought in the Sugarcreek Police and Tuscarawas County Sheriff’s Department when we created these plans,” Millet said. “We also had a consultant from the Department of Homeland Security who looked them over to be sure we didn’t overlook anything.”
Beun noted that East Holmes worked with the Holmes County Sheriff’s Department as well as Chief S. Thomas Vaughn from the Millersburg Police Department to be sure that everyone was on the same page. “Collaboration is important. We review the plans every year,” he explained. “There are drills with staff, like during our recent ALICE training, and with students when needed. Our principals work with the staff on a monthly basis.”
ALICE stands for Alert Lockdown Inform County Evacuate and is a standard training method used by law enforcement, schools, businesses and healthcare facilities to educate their personnel on what to do in case of an emergency involving an active intruder.
Beun noted that options have changed. “Now, staff have options,” he said. “They can barricade in or try to leave the building. It is up to each teacher how they react.”
At Garaway 7-12, Taggert noted that instituting Jason Wallick as the attendance officer has also led to greater student security. “We know where kids are during the school day,” he said. “The first semester of the 2014-15 school year, there were 658 unauthorized absences. The first semester of this school year [2017-18], there were 32 unauthorized absences.”
“Before, if a student missed third period, the teacher would send out an email asking if anyone knew where he/she was,” Taggert said. “Now, we have radios in use, and we can get a faster answer or begin looking, if needed. Keeping track of students is part of safety. Thankfully, 99 percent of the time if a student isn’t accounted for, they are in the bathroom.”
“The radios also allow immediate contact,” Millet shared. “If there is something going on, there is a panic button a teacher can press, and we can all jump to action.”
Both praised the vision of Brian Gibson who applied for a grant used to purchase the radio system.
Taggert noted that all pieces of the education puzzle are important and that parents are a key component of the safety package. “Communication with parents is key,” he said. “We want parents, teachers and administrators to work together to create the best possible environment for our students. Safe students who feel secure perform better.”
He shared data that shows that average grade point average increased when student absences went down. During the second nine weeks of the 2014-15 school year, the average student GPA was 3.31. For the same time during the current school year, the average GPA was 3.47.
A collaborative effort
Looking forward, Millet noted that Garaway has been in talks with the Sugarcreek Police Department in reference to adding another layer of security to the 7-12 building. In addition, Garaway is looking to apply for funds for Phase 2 of the keycard project that would implement web-based video surveillance at keycard points to give administrators a clear look at exactly who is coming and going from the building.
“We love working for our staff and students who understand the need for safety,” Taggert said. “By working together, our administration has grown closer and has a vision for all our buildings. The teachers share the same passion and are helping our students grow.”
“Everyone is working together and supporting each other,” Millet said. “They love Garaway and our kids. They understand the importance of safety in all that we do.”
In light of recent threats against local schools, Tuscarawas County Sheriff Orvis Campbell noted that there is a Zero Tolerance Policy. “We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior,” Sheriff Campbell said. “We will be swift and sure with our investigations. There will be no leniency for individuals who indicate they may cause harm to another person.”